Cities are becoming smarter than ever before, with a plethora of startups looking to transform how we interact with our urban spaces. The rise of the smart city, however, poses a new and difficult problem for governments: as more services move online, and the nature of those services becomes increasingly complex, they risk becoming inaccessible to large groups of the population. A diverse group of European startups are working to tackle this problem by developing solutions to make smart cities work for all inhabitants, regardless of their accessibility needs. 

‘Smarter’ does not always mean easier

Cities are increasingly incorporating digital innovations to make their urban centres smarter, with the aim of improving the well-being of their inhabitants. Case studies like this are common across European cities, from the municipality of Albertslund, in Denmark, using smart sensors to optimise the collection and route planning of waste; to the city of Athens using Novoville, a citizen engagement platform, to let its citizens access a number of key local services.

However, the technologies that are becoming increasingly integrated into our cities can make life in the city more difficult for some population cohorts. In particular, many innovations that are supposed to make cities smarter are not sufficiently accessible to those with disabilities.  For example, the digital platforms and apps that are increasingly used to allow citizens to directly communicate with municipality officials are often not accessible to those who cannot access (touch) screens, such as people living with physical or visual impairment. The increased presence of screens and buttons in the built environment also frequently creates accessibility challenges. In fact, research by the SmartCities4All initiative found that  60% of global experts confirm that smart cities are failing disabled people.

Moreover, new smart city solutions are often not focused on improving the quality of life of those with additional needs: despite 15% of the world population having some form of disability. The same SmartCities4All research found that 96% of ongoing digital development projects worldwide do not even mention people with disabilities.

A new market and a big opportunity

A collection of startups are working to solve this problem, and make cities smarter for those with disabilities. Not only are they focused on making existing technologies accessible, a collection of startups is also working to develop solutions to improve city life, specifically for those with additional needs. In making cities more accessible, local businesses and attractions also benefit, given that the consumer spending power of disabled people and their families is around £249bn (€249.6bn) in the UK and €1 trillion world-wide.

Having scouted the European ‘Accessibility Tech’ market, we’ve found three broad categories of startups that are working to make cities more accessible for all their inhabitants: First, there are start-ups that make smart cities and their integrated technologies more accessible. Second, there is a collection of businesses that make using transport and navigating around the city easier for those with disabilities. Finally, there is a category of start-ups that are focused on making visits to shops and venues a better experience for those with accessibility needs.

Making city technologies accessible

Touch screens are used in a range of smart city solutions – from citizen engagement apps, to ticket kiosks to displays providing data collected by smart sensors. However, the information displayed on touch screens is not always accessible to those with visual or physical impairments. German startup Speech Code and Spanish-based Mouse4all are seeking to change this.

Speech Code makes touch screens accessible for those with visual impairments by providing technology that generates a QR-like code that holds the entire content on a given display. Once scanned with the free SpeechCode App, it presents the content – without Internet access – as text and/or in audio format.

Mouse4All provides an app that allows those who cannot the screen by touching it with their hands to command the screen with an alternative input interface suited to one’s physical abilities, such as an adapted mouse, a trackball or joystick.

Buttons, which are also increasingly used on digital kiosks and sensors around the city, pose a problem for those with visual or physical impairments. The Button app, developed by startup Neatebox, helps overcome this challenge by allowing users to press buttons, like those at pedestrian crossings, by using their smartphone.

Transport and navigation

While apps like Google Maps, TripAdvisor and Citymapper have made planning journeys around the city much easier, these platforms are often not as useful for those with additional needs. The standard navigation apps often do not include information about accessibility or when they do it is incomplete or unreliable. When reliable accessibility information is included, it is often in the form of labels like ‘accessible or ‘inaccessible’, which is unhelpful as people’s accessibility needs are diverse.

Apps like SociAbilitiy and AccessAble are aiming to provide an alternative to TripAdvisor and Yelp that do include detailed and reliable accessibility information about shops, restaurants, museums and other venues across cities in the UK and the US.

Meanwhile, CityMaas helps those with disabilities plan their travel to these venues by generating travel routes that include a range of accessible transport modes. If assistance is needed at any or all stages of the journey, the CityMaaS Assist will even help arrange that. Booking is taken care of in-app, and it covers everything from bike hire to the subway.

French startup Wheeliz is aiming to increase the amount of affordable accessible transport available by providing an Uber-style peer-to-peer user adapted car rentals service. Created in 2015, the website offers individual owners of an adapted car the possibility of renting it directly to a wheelchair user who needs it.

Finally, UK startup Wayfindr allows vision impaired individuals to navigate through transport hubs independently by providing auditory navigation cues. The cues are generated from bluetooth beacons placed in the stations which connect to the user’s phone and allow the user to receive the cues via an app.

Visiting shops and venues

Even when businesses or restaurants can be reached by accessible transport, visiting these venues can still pose challenges to those with additional needs. Often, visitors with accessibility requirements receive inadequate customer service due to lack of disability awareness and confidence of staff members.

The Welcome app developed by Neatebox aims to tackle this problem. Businesses can use the app to inform customers of their accessibility features, and users with disabilities can notify venues of their requirements before arrival. When a customer with additional needs notifies the venue of her intention to visit, staff receives information about their specific needs so that they can provide appropriate support once they arrive.

Handiscover provides a similar solution for travel accommodation. Through the platform, consumers can search for and book travel accommodation based on various accessibility needs and communicate their needs with the provider before booking their trip.

Finally, Be My Eyes allows visually impaired individuals to access products, services, and websites by connecting them with sighted volunteers or customer service representatives via live video call. Via the video call users receive visual assistance to navigate around shops, perform tasks and access information. The business model here is especially intriguing: Be My Eyes offers its accessible technology to businesses, who can use an advanced version of the Be My Eyes app to connect their customer service staff with blind and visually impaired individuals. For example, Microsoft uses Be My Eyes to provide blind or visually impaired customers with off-site technical support. Using a B2B model like the one Be My Eyes employs is a smart option for disability tech businesses, as it keeps the prices for the often expensive technology low for disabled users. In addition, when selling one’s products or services, businesses can be easier to reach than disabled individuals as there are pre-existing accessibility barriers that prevent those with disabilities from using the internet, smartphones and visiting venues.

The funding landscape

The disability tech market is still young and VC funding has been relatively low in the last decade. Out of 75 European assistive tech start-ups founded in the last 10 years that we looked at, only 9 had raised a series A round and only 3 had received series B funding.

However, the market has been growing and there is reason to think that it will continue to do so.  According to a Crunchbase analysis, global venture investment in disability tech grew by 133% 2012 and 2017, from €108.6 million to €253.3 million per year. During that same period of time, the number of VC deals grew by 87 percent, from 38 deals struck in 2012 to 71 in 2017.  An increased interest in disability tech can be explained by an increasing awareness that an ageing population means that more people will experience some form of disability during their lifetime.

Governments are beginning to take notice

Governments are also becoming increasingly interested in funding and supporting entrepreneurship in the field of assistive technology. The Canadian government was one of the early movers on this challenge, freeing up €15.3 million euros in 2017 to support innovators and entrepreneurs developing new assistive technologies.

In Europe, we have seen recent moves from cities and local governments to introduce new accessibility initiatives and programmes. For example, the German cities of Dortmund, Duisburg and Arnsberg secured €1.4 million in  funding from the European Regional Development Fund to trial and implement assistive technologies to support independent living over the 2016-2019 period. The Netherlands is also exploring how to increase the implementation of assistive technologies, but with a focus on employment. In 2018, the UWV (the Dutch Employee Insurance Agency) commissioned by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment, provided grants worth €300,000 for businesses and innovators to trial the use of assistive technologies to improve employee well-being.

Multiple local UK governments and cities have explored how they can develop assistive technologies for local services over the past six months. Notably, in September 2019, The East London Inclusive Enterprise Zone, which is a £1.2 million (€1.4 million) project aimed at incubating and accelerating accessible innovation enterprises, was launched as the result of a collaboration between the Greater London Authority, Hackney Council, several London universities and non-profit organisations. More recently, there have been similar moves in specific sectors, from healthcare to education. Northamptonshire County Council is currently tendering for enterprises to be part of an assistive technology framework aimed at technologies that support independent living at home. In addition, the Department for Education is looking for a delivery partner for an edtech assistive technology testbed programme. 

One start-up that stands out for its collaboration with the UK government is Wayfindr. The navigation system for the vision impaired was awarded funding through the Transport Technology Research Innovation Grant and was given permission to trial its navigation tool on the London Underground at Euston and Pimlico station. Both of these trials have been a success and the start-up has been starting to roll out its technology in the US, while also implementing further trials to see how its technology can be used in different settings like hospitals and airports.